In terms of all-time iconic basses, the Music Man Stingray is surely vying for a place in the top three. For 35 years it’s been one of the foremost active basses for traditionally-minded players: basic, sensible, and able to slot sweetly into most situations.
Music Man started life as Tri-Sonic, a company set up by Leo Fender, Forrest White and Tom Walker in 1971. They began producing instruments around ’76 after the 10-year ‘no compete’ clause that Leo had signed when he sold Fender to CBS in 1965 expired. The Stingray was the second instrument out of the factory (after the mostly-forgotten Stingray 1 guitar).
By the time Ernie Ball acquired the near-bankrupt company in 1984 Leo Fender had long since jumped ship to G&L, but Ernie Ball retained the guts of the original Stingray concept when they re-commenced production in 1985, correctly identifying the fact that the design of the bass wasn’t the problem.
Thanks to the endorsement and patronage of bassists of the calibre of Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson), Cliff Williams (AC/DC) and Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the rejuvenated Stingray has thrived.
Now Music Man is revisiting the original concept with the Stingray 4 Classic. The Stingray body stills reveals that strong Fender influence, and our one is finished in clear gloss – what Music Man calls ‘classic natural’ – over ash. It’s beautiful.
Moving to the sharp end, we find the famous ‘3 1’ headstock with chrome Schaller BM tuners and tapered string posts, while the neck and the separate fingerboard are both crafted from naturally-finished maple with some gorgeous birdseye figuring, finished again in high-gloss polyester.
The position markers are black dots, and the 21 expertly-fitted frets are high and narrow. This neck has a wonderful profile… a combination of meaningful substance with the expectancy of playing fluency. It’s super-securely clamped to the body by a six-screw neckplate; as usual, Music Man has outdone itself it terms of neck joint solidity and stability.
The ovoid pickguard, another familiar sight, is a three-ply black affair, while the pickup is the famous humbucker with its double line of exposed poles; this one is an MM unit with Alnico magnets. Another highly visible old-school detail is the chrome ‘boomerang’ control plate – so highly polished that you could use your bass to apply your eyeliner, should that be your idea of essential stagewear.
The bridge is a string-through-body design, chunky and chrome-plated, with a hardened steel bottom plate, stainless saddles and ultra-retro foam mutes under each string; you raise and lower the mutes by turning the knurled bolts.
There’s a strong argument that the Stingray corrected two of the weak points of the original design of the Precision and Jazz basses – the flimsy bridge and the illogical fretboard range from low E to a high Eb. It’s also fair to say that the Stingray helped enormously in terms of popularising active electronics.
As always, the necessary 9v battery lives in a separate compartment on the back, covered by a screw-fixed chrome plate. The controls are simple: Volume, Bass and Treble. The ease with which you can dial up the classic Music Man sound – simply wind everything up to maximum – is one of the real beauties of the Stingray design.
We’re lucky enough to have access to a 1978 original, and at 4.3kg/9.5lbs the Classic is virtually identical in weight. It’s solid and fairly stable in the seated position and a tiny bit fatiguing hanging around your neck – but nothing that a sensible comfort strap can’t sort out.
So let’s begin with that time-honoured everything-full-up setting. Big and extrovert, it’s the Stingray sound you’re looking for; hit an open E string and it snarls, but there’s a crunch behind it and so much life in the sound that it’s a wonder that when you fret a note it isn’t swamped by click and clank.
There is some body and depth, although you could never accuse the sound of being fat in a filling-up-space manner; that isn’t the purpose of this setting on a Stingray… it’s more contemporary than classic rock, and none the worse for it.
Because the humbucker is set so far back towards the bridge, this liveliness comes hand-in-hand with a high mid honk, and yet the mass of sparkling high end that the pickup spits out prevents everything sounding squashed or over-compressed.
While the response is beautifully even across the fretboard, the position of the pickup means the midrange is not the most forceful. Again, the tone’s sheer exuberance makes up for this – pop the G string and it explodes with glistening harmonics.
Along with the controls-on-full Fender Jazz sound, this has got to be one of the best slap sounds around. Playing fingerstyle it’s snappy, cutting and biting, but not brittle. If you want to cut through, look no further.
If all this is just a little too lively for you, rolling off Treble provides a more bass-oriented sound. Nudge it back a third and the sound retains just enough raspy crunch for pop-oriented soul or funk. Cut it back to halfway or further and the Classic accrues enough pure thud to put you in bluesy soul or rock territory.
You never really get rid of the zing, but that’s all part of the Stingray’s ever-present definition.
1. Music Man Stingray 4 Classic